I've titled this entry "Blue Skies of Beijing" because we have had the most incredible luck with the weather here in northern China. With over 20 million people in the city, and coal still being used as a major source of power, Beijing is one of the most polluted cities in the world. Most of the year, a thick haze hangs over the city and in the spring, when the "Yellow Winds" blow in from Mongolia, breathing becomes difficult and hazardous. October is considered the best time of the year to visit the capital, and that was the reason we were eager to arrive now, travel north, and work our way southwards.
Our plane from Shanghai arrived around 5:00 pm and we were surprised to see a hint of blue sky as we drove in from the airport. We had booked a room at a hotel in the Tuan Jie Hu area of the city, as we were planning on meeting up with a friend from Edmonton. The area has lots of trees, small restaurants and a lovely main street that gives the feeling of being in a smaller city with a lot of local flavour. Our room on the fourth floor overlooked the sports field of an elementary school so Anil immediately felt at home.
I should explain how I met our friend Tamara Dolinsky. Four years ago I was at my wits end with recurring migraine headaches. I had figured out that they were caused primarily by yeast but was finding that many other simple foods and fruits were starting to have adverse effects on my health. One day I happened by a new clinic near our home called The Shen Health and Wellness Centre and I stopped in to look at the brochures on display. One in particular caught my eye. It described a treatment for allergies that involves acupuncture. I was ready to try anything and after talking to the therapist, Tamara, I booked my first appointment. I am thrilled to tell you that after several treatments, I am now pretty much migraine free and have been for the past three years. Over the course of the sessions at the Shen, Tamara and I talked about our mutual love of travel and fantasized about the possibility of meeting up in China where she had spent several years working and learning Chinese. As it turned out, Tamara had planned a ten-day trip to Beijing at the same time we were planning on being there. We booked the hotel she had chosen so we could introduce us to this ancient city.
First stop was breakfast at a small hole-in-the-wall place for meat-filled steamed buns. Heavenly! It looks like the woman running the place prepares the food at home and then rents the space just for the morning hours - the place is hopping. By 9:00 am all the food is consumed and she and her workers load up all the utensils and leave. The rest of the day, the shop is run by other people for lunch and dinner. We ended up having breakfast there every day and I know we will miss her great food once we move on.
The weather was quite cool in Beijing, especially after the warm, humid air in Shanghai. It was a relief not to sweat anymore, but I found the dryness hard on my skin. On our second day, we awoke to a city completely enveloped in smog - we could hardly see across the schoolyard and both of us developed sore throats and runny noses. It was a little bit depressing as we worried that it would be like that for our entire stay. We spent the day shadowing Tamara as she set off to do her last minute shopping for presents. It was a great introduction to the city as we didn't have to think too hard about where to go and we could acclimatize. By mid-afternoon, we left Tamara and headed back to the hotel for a rest. As we left the Yashow Clothing Market, we were shocked to see a huge skyscraper near our hotel on fire with black smoke billowing from the roof. It was such a huge fire that I couldn't imagine how they could possibly put it out. To our amazement, the fire was extinguished by the time we reached our hotel, about a fifteen-minute walk away. Pretty impressive fire-fighting capabilities. In this city of skyscrapers, it's reassuring to know that this can be accomplished.
My brother David and his wife Jeong Ae arrived the following day while the city was still socked in. We went to the airport to meet them and it was a wonderful reunion, recalling our trip together one year earlier when we met up in Bangkok before setting off for Cambodia and Vietnam. They were pretty tired but managed to stay up long enough to have dinner and order several kinds of beer at the restaurant so that we could have a taste test and determine which brands would be our drink du jour. On their first day in China, we set off to the clothing market to buy shoes and warm sweaters for the Beijing climate. We also stopped in to order new eyeglasses as they are so affordable here and make them up in about an hour. We went to the eyeglass market but later saw signs near our hotel advertising Lenscrafters. I guess Macdonald's and KFC are not the only American chains that have invaded the Middle Kingdom.
Now it was time to go in search of a travel agent who would help us get the necessary permit to travel to Tibet. Technically, tourists have to be part of a tour group to visit this autonomous region, but a tour can consist of only one person. It's just a way to get major money; it's not likely to be included in the basic Chinese visa anytime soon. After tromping all over the place and having no luck, I finally called the Canadian embassy and the receptionist directed us to Tibetan Travel, located in an apartment complex not far from the embassy. We would never have found it on our own as there are no signs and even the concierge in the building couldn't help us. We used our mobile to call the travel agent and she told the concierge which floor to send us to. The woman operates the agency out of her one bedroom apartment on the twenty-eighth floor. If the embassy hadn't sent us there, I never would have trusted her with our permit fee. The woman spoke excellent English; was exceedingly polite and helpful and even let us gape out her windows at the view of the city below.
We were feeling pretty hungry and Jeong Ae had noticed a Korean restaurant at the base of the building. With mouths watering we headed there and while we decided on our order, Jeong Ae started chatting with the Korean woman in charge. Before our meal was finished, the woman's husband came to our table and invited us to have a complimentary coffee in their other business, an SPR Coffee shop. If it wasn't for the logo on the window, one would think it was a Starbucks. Mr. Kim joined us for a visit and then invited us all to see an antique Chinese furniture warehouse on the outskirts of Beijing, provided we would have dinner in the restaurant when we returned. David and Jeong Ae were thrilled as they have been importing furniture from Asia for the past twenty-five years and were keen to see some of the best of the best. The showroom is not on the tourist maps; it is open by invitation only so this was an honour to be invited.
It was terrific to travel from the heart of Beijing to the far northeast of the city and then view the 300 to 500 year-old treasures. Much of the furniture was valued in the thousands of dollars and it was overwhelming to see such beautiful pieces all under one roof. Apparently, all the furniture in the multi-storey building is owned by one man. We drove back to the restaurant through rush-hour traffic while Mr. Kim explained to us how minor traffic accidents are dealt with in such a large city. Apparently, when an accident happens, a crowd usually gathers to stare and comment on who is at fault. If there is damage to the vehicles, a debate usually takes place with the end result that the crowd decides who should pay and how much. If there is a lot at stake, sometimes the crowd will become divided along sides and there will be a huge give-and-take before a settlement is reached. In effect, the crowd becomes the judge and jury and everyone generally leaves satisfied. Sounds like a good system to me; it keeps the courts and the insurance companies out of the picture.
Everyone we talked to about Beijing warned us about the appalling traffic in this city of twenty million people. I have to say, I was really impressed at how well the traffic flows. Of course there is gridlock during the peak hours of the day, but the streets are exceptionally wide, the access to the ring roads well-planned, and we observed that the vehicles seemed to move like a school of fish in a wide stream. There are a lot of frequent lane changes but in the entire week we were in the city we didn't see any serious accidents.
We continue to enjoy trying new foods in China, although I have to say we are not as adventurous as before. Tamara took us to a great restaurant to have the famous Peking Duck and we enjoyed our evening with her friends Holly and Xiao Jiang. The duck is sliced thinly and then eaten with black bean sauce and slivered scallions wrapped in a thin crepe-like pancake. Xiao told us that although the Jin Bao Restaurant is not noted for it's Peking Duck, it was as good as any he had ever eaten and he is a local Beijinger. Another day we tried eating at a restaurant where you cook your food at your table in beautiful copper vessels. The meat and vegetables are added to boiling water and the diners can season the broth to taste with a variety of ingredients. When the broth level gets low, the waitress refills the pot with boiling water from a huge copper pot.
There is every opportunity to eat wholesome food in China so it is troubling to see western food habits making inroads with the younger generation. Bakeries full of sweets, ice cream vendors, soft drinks, burgers and fries are wrecking havoc with Chinese children. With China's one-child policy, many of the children (especially the boys) are indulged beyond belief. When we visited the Temple of Heaven, I snapped a photo of a couple of boys caught up in their video games. I hope they are not the future of China's youth.
After a couple of smoggy days, we awoke to rain on Saturday morning. We were glad that we had purchased umbrellas in Shanghai when the northern edge of the typhoon hit. They came in handy in Beijing's rain. We headed out to visit the "dirt" market hoping that the rain would not turn the market to mud. Just as we arrived, the sun broke through and for the next three days we enjoyed cloudless bright blue skies. It couldn't have been better weather for our time in the market, at the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace and the Great Wall.
Our last day was smoggy once again and just to show you what a difference the pollution makes, I snapped a picture of the "Leaning Towers of Beijing" as we passed them for the last time. Time to move on to Xi'an and the famous Terra Cotta warriors!